Lakeland Approves Shipping Containers for Housing, Small Businesses

shipping container home

Lakeland city commissioners today approved the use of shipping containers as tiny homes on property zoned for mobile homes or multi-family dwellings. In addition, shipping containers are now available for certain commercial uses.

The new uses for shipping containers were part of a major slate of changes to the city’s Land Development Code, all approved unanimously by the commission today.

See a summary of the changes here or at the end of this article.

The changes had previously been approved by the Lakeland Planning and Zoning Board.

The permitted uses for business activity would include small-scale restaurants where “fresh food products are prepared on site,” small-scale retail shops, indoor hydroponic production of fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs, and other uses the director of Community and Economic Development approves, according to the proposal.

Prim Burney, owner of Open Door Wellness, calls it an excellent idea. She sells herbal wellness products, such as loose leaf teas, and offers yoga classes. Currently, she sells her products at Buena Market and the Winter Haven Farmers Market.

She believes the shipping containers would be a “great avenue for [her] small business to find a physical home.”

“I would hope it is a more affordable avenue for the many small businesses working to flourish in the city,” she said.

Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, said she’s “totally in favor” of the changes.

“More retail and restaurants would benefit downtown. Any thriving district needs a density of retail and restaurants,” she said. “The container concept can offer small start ups like those from Catapult and the Farmers Curb Market the opportunity to test the market without a lot of startup capital.”

The city planning department began looking into the idea in the spring while trying to find ways to make it easier for people to scale their businesses, Lakeland chief planner Matt Lyons said.

“The goal is to reduce the barriers to entry, [and] reduce the risk that comes with starting a new business. Conventional businesses, you have a large [amount] of startup costs. Anything we can do to make it easier and help them get their foot in the ground is the goal here,” he said.

The move to allow shipping containers for housing is one of the ways the city is trying to address a shortage of affordable housing, Lyons said: “Because of the recent run up in housing prices, we really looking for anything we can do to encourage more affordable housing.”

The shipping containers would have to be built on a permanent foundation and comply with Florida building and fire prevention codes, according to the proposed ordinance. For containers being converted into tiny homes, the exterior would also have to be modified to include windows, “doors, awnings, and finishing materials such as stucco, fiber, or cement siding, or other materials appropriate for residential use,” the proposal states. The plans would have to be approved through the conditional use process.

Previously, the shipping containers weren’t permitted, due to people using them as cheap storage units, such as a shed, without altering the exterior, according to Lyons. He said the city hasn’t allowed that use in the past and that’s not changing.

The ordinance states that commercial-use shipping containers must be built as an accessory to a building already on the property. Only one can be one installed per property.  If someone wanted to build a court of shipping containers like Sparkman’s Wharf in Tampa, they’d need a conditional-use permit.

Lyons said the goal is for business owners to creatively repurpose the shipping containers while adding value to the community. He said the shipping containers would still have to look like a business with commercial doors, windows, outdoor lighting, seating if a restaurant, and landscaping planters.

“If someone wants to do this,  they’re going to have to put some money up front modifying them. We want them to read as commercial businesses, not just someone who is set up in a container. They need to be attractive and fit in with the commercial character of the area they’re in,” Lyons said.

As commissioners approved the changes to the Land Development Code this morning, Commissioner Stephanie Madden praised the work of the city’s staff in drafting the changes. “I can’t really say enough how much I appreciate our team. Each one of these came from dealing with citizens, builders, developers to work together to come up with a solution and to get to a yes.”